11.06.2008

On Cynicism, Race, and the President-Elect

Since election night, I've tried to figure out why I wasn't as impressed with or moved by the election of Obama as so many out there.

What distinguished the effusive, joyous collective response from my own?  (Beyond my inherent wariness of chanting, mesmerized crowds fawning over politicians in a manner that borders on a cult of personality)

After a good deal of brow furrowing, I finally pinpointed what makes up the bulk of it:

Obama's election was not a very big deal to me because I am fundamentally indifferent to his race.  It wasn't a relevant factor.

Most of the baby boomer-aged commentators, and even many of his ardent youthful supporters, focused on the momentousness of Obama's election as a milestone because of his race.  David Brooks spoke of a double pivot election.  Obama himself let his vague talismans of hope and change linger in the air, a miasma for all to shape in their mind's eye as a racial march forward - tapping both white liberal guilt and black solidarity.  The networks broadcast live from Ebenezer Baptist Church.

While I acknowledge the historical benchmark as a sidenote and factual matter, the ascent of a black president simply wasn't a factor in my personal calculus when assessing the man as a potential leader.  I saw the factor for its political salience in the overall national electoral picture, but it seemed a rather superficial consideration to me in the end.  I find it ironic that his race appeared to matter so much to those who supported him...almost more than to those who opposed him.  Remove the skin tone symbology, and Obama's election is drastically less miraculous.

President-elect Obama is an intelligent man.  Despite having fortuitous events like the economic crisis, a cuddly media, and a low post-Bush hurdle in his favor, he nevertheless ran a near-impeccable campaign.  I am far more concerned by some of his supporters than by him.
But Obama's rhetoric about rejecting cynicism and doubt concerned me along the campaign trail and in his acceptance speech.  I enjoy a positive outlook as much as the next person.  I want a president who reminds me of the positive facets of my country.  I want a realistic president, though.  One who recognizes scarcity, one who sees limits to what government can achieve and how it can shape individuals.

A little cynicism and doubt in the face of 63% of the under 35 vote - 66% of those under 29 - voting in lockstep ecstasy...is not out of order.  


But this is not, headline writers, Barack Obama’s America. He is not your leader, any more than the mayor of your town is your leader. We are free people. We lead ourselves. He is set to be a high-ranking public administrator. Sure, there is romance in fame. But romance in politics is dangerous, misplaced, and beneath intelligent people. Were we more fully civilized, we would tolerate the yearnings projected on our leaders. Our tribal nature is not so easily escaped, after all. But we would try to escape it. We would discourage and condemn as irresponsible a romantic politics that tells us that if we all come together and want it hard enough, we’ll get it. We would spot the dangerous fallacy in condemning as “cynicism” all serious attempts to critically evaluate the content of political hopes.